What is a Reactive Dog?
Reactive is a term used to describe a dog who overreacts to the sight or sound of a specific trigger. The reaction may include barking, growling, snarling, lunging, spinning or some combination of these behaviors in response to seeing a trigger like another dog, a person, a bicycle, a child, etc.
The reaction is usually scary for both the person holding the reacting dog’s leash and for other people and dogs witnessing the reaction. The reactive dog looks aggressive although fear is often the underlying motivation. Dogs generally communicate a few basic things to other dogs; “Come closer so I can get to know you”, “Let’s go chase stuff together!” and “Please go away!” Generally the reactive dog is screaming please go away in the best way that s/he knows how. The behavior of the reactive dog tends to be unintentionally reinforced when the trigger (dog or person) does not approach and instead, goes away. From the reactive dog’s perspective the formula went like this:
1) See the scary trigger
2) React dramatically
3) Scary trigger moves away
4) Reactive dog learns that his/her reaction works to keep scary things away. This learning happens even when the trigger had no intention of approaching in the first place.
Having a dog who behaves like this in public can be scary, embarrassing and confusing for the owner who wonders how it’s possible for their best friend, who is so wonderful at home, to act so horribly out in public? These owners struggle with getting their dog enough exercise or just being able to have a nice walk together while trying their best to avoid the people, dogs or situations that come together and turn their sweet pet into a whirling twirling dervish on the end of a leash.
What Can You Do?
Dogs that are reactive can benefit from training that teaches the dog some new things to do when faced with a trigger. The human on the other end of the leash can also greatly benefit from training and practicing a set of skills that give them ways to help their pet navigate challenging situations without having a reaction.
In our experience, it is actually the human’s learning and practicing that is more important than the dog’s. A person with a reactive dog is also conditioned to having an emotional reaction in the presence of the trigger(s) that set the dog off. Imagine that you are out for a lovely walk with your dog on a beautiful spring day when suddenly another dog and handler appear from around a corner. You know the sight of another dog is going to cause your dog to bark, lunge, growl and spin like a maniac, so you do what is instinctual; many times before your dog even sees the other dog, you tighten up on the leash in preparation for the reaction that you know is coming. In addition to tightening up on the leash, your heart rate goes up, your breathing increases and as your dog catches sight of the other dog and starts to pull forward, you start yelling “No! No!, Quit it!, It’s just a dog … stop it!” and next thing you know your dog is launching into a full blown explosion. You manage to drag your reactive dog past the trigger and you are left thinking … “Darn it – it happened again!” Although this example was a dog-to-dog reaction, remember the trigger can be anything.
Now imagine this same scenario but when you see the other dog and handler pop out from around the corner, you know exactly what to do to navigate this situation successfully. You are a confident handler, your leash stays nice and loose as you give your dog a command, and your dog happily and swiftly complies with your command because you’ve practiced it so many times in so many different situations.
You and your dog stay in control, the other dog and handler pass by, and you continue your walk with not a hint of a reaction. If you have been struggling with a reactive dog it may be hard to believe that you can get to this point, but we are here to tell you that improvement and success are absolutely possible. Not only have we modified the behavior of our own highly reactive dog, but we have helped many clients with reactive dogs achieve success that they did not think was possible.
The Keys to Success
1) Prevent your dog from practicing the behavior of reacting. Yes, reacting is a behavior just like sit, or down or any other behavior you and your dog practice together. Many times reactive dogs do not just bark at triggers on walks but they will also bark at triggers from inside the car or while inside the house. Any time your dog barks at a trigger s/he is practicing a behavior you don’t want. This will take some commitment on your part, but if you want to achieve that nice calm walk with your dog then s/he must no longer be allowed to bark at triggers. Period.
When we finally got serious about changing the behavior of our reactive dog, Jubilee, we had to recognize all the places she was barking at other dogs and put controls in place to prevent it. She rode in the car only when she was in a covered crate, she was in a covered crate anytime we left the house, and anytime she barked at anything out of a window while we were home; we swiftly interrupted her and put her in a down/stay. No more barking at other dogs in the car, in the house or anywhere was the rule we put in place. We were serious about it and we stuck to it.
2) Get effective gear. We are big fans of both the Sensation Harness and Gentle Leader, but for reactive dogs who are just starting to learn their new skills or even seasoned recovering reactives, the Gentle Leader is our equipment of choice. The Gentle Leader provides the handler with control of the dog’s head. If the dog makes a mistake or the handler misjudges a situation and gets too close to a trigger, it is relatively easy to turn the dogs head and get him/her moving in a different direction.
3) Keep your dog below threshold. The threshold is the distance where your dog begins his/her reaction to the trigger. Once your dog is in a reactive state, s/he is not able to learn effectively, so keeping an appropriate distance so that your dog remains below threshold and able to work (follow commands and eat) is very important. Remember that this applies to situations other than walks as well (i.e. in the car and house).
4) Each trigger is different. We are often asked whether or not the working distance a handler and dog must keep between the dog and the trigger will decrease over time. The answer is yes, but the handler must keep in mind that each trigger is a unique scenario. The distance the handler must keep from the trigger may depend on many things including;
Is the trigger making unbroken eye contact with the dog?
How many other triggers have we been exposed to today?
Is the trigger acting like s/he might approach the dog?
Is it a trigger that is particularly difficult for the dog? I.E. Small dog that is barking.
There are many qualities that make a trigger unique and it is part of the handler’s job it evaluate each trigger as it presents itself to determine the best course of action to keep the dog under threshold.
5) Keep practicing your core and basic skills. We can’t emphasize practice, practice, practice enough. The core skills we teach to private clients with reactive dogs and in the Growly Dog Class are; the back away, the u-turn and the leave-it. These are used to keep the dog below threshold and to refocus the dog on the handler. In addition to the core skills, we will review and improve the basic skills of sit, down, touch and attention exercises. Becoming a great athlete or musician takes lots of practice, and so does being successful with your reactive dog.
Think about every outing with your dog as a training opportunity. If training is your mindset, when you run into that previously scary trigger with your dog, you will be ready with the skills and tools you need to go to work.
You love your dog and want to enjoy outings with your best friend. After all, is there anything more natural than going on a walk with a dog? But, maybe your dog’s behavior has made your walks difficult, unenjoyable and some days even impossible. With consistent training, and an understanding of a few basic principals, you can, once again, enjoy walking with your dog. As your training progresses and you begin to feel confident about what you can accomplish together, you might even go out looking for triggers so you can practice your skills.